Northwest #Colorado water users wary of potential water cutbacks by state — @AspenJournalism #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A fleet of rafts makes its way down the Green River toward its confluence with the Yampa River. Future potential releases of water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir to boost levels in Lake Powell shape the flows on the Green River, although it’s not clear how the releases may change flow levels. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smity

From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):

After 19 years of extended drought in the Colorado River basin, water users in Northwest Colorado are concerned that the region could become a “sacrificial lamb” as the state seeks to reduce water use to meet downstream demands.

As Colorado water officials begin work on a new “demand management” system to reduce water consumption, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, which met Jan. 9 in Craig, are seeking to make sure the cutbacks don’t disproportionately impact their river basins, including the Yampa, White and Green rivers. The concerns prompted the creation of a new Big River Committee, which met for the first time Jan. 9, to advocate for the basin on state and regional issues across the Colorado River system.

“We’re already doing our fair share,” said Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, a basin roundtable member and fourth-generation cattle rancher. “[In the Yampa basin] we already use only 10 percent of our water — 90 percent of our water goes to Lake Powell.”

There is relatively little reservoir storage on the Yampa River — less than 72,000 acre feet of water on the main stem and a total of 113,000 acre feet in the basin — compared to other major rivers in the West, meaning most of the water feeds into the Colorado River system and eventually Lake Powell.

“Such a small part of our native flow is developed, and there are concerns about how much should fall on the shoulders of our basin to send past the state line when we already don’t use very much,” said Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Chair Jackie Brown, who is the natural resources policy advisor for Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

Indeed, data shows that consumptive water use in the Yampa basin averaged about 182,000 acre feet of water annually between 1990 and 2013, or about 10 percent of the basin’s total 1.74-million acre feet of average annual stream flow, according to hydrologic models used by the state.

By comparison, upper Colorado River stream flows averaged about 3.8 million acre feet of water over the same time period, not including the Gunnison River. Consumptive use equaled about 908,000 acre feet, or about 24 percent of the basin’s total water, according to the same data source.

But Colorado water law doesn’t account for such discrepancies across basins, and prioritizes water use according to a system based on dates tied to the initiation of a water right, often described as “first in time, first in right.”

“The Yampa and the White both were settled at such a later time period than the Front Range and some other areas, and we’re that much further behind in priority dates,” Monger said. “If we want to go forward on the prior appropriation system for allocating future water — last one in is the first one cut — that absolutely doesn’t work for us.”

Yampa River

Demand management

Many roundtable members believe the Yampa and White river basins should have the right to develop their water resources further in the future.

“We’re the sacrificial lamb if they were to lock things in the way they are now,” said Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a member of the Big River Committee.

However, such worries are largely speculative at the moment, as the mechanisms of a demand management program are far from decided and drought contingency planning hasn’t yet been finalized.

“This is the very, very beginning of the demand management conversation,” said Brent Newman, the interstate, federal and water information section chief for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The board has already committed to avoiding “disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region within Colorado while protecting the legal rights of water holders,” according to a policy statement adopted by the agency’s board in November.

“We want to make sure no basin is a target basin, and as best we can, make sure reductions are shared equitably across the state, across basins and the divide,” Newman said. “We’re trying to make things fair.”

If a compact call were to occur — a demand by lower basin states for more water to be sent downstream according to the Colorado River Compact — then it is widely expected that Colorado water officials will use the prior appropriation doctrine to curtail water use based on seniority.

“We want to be proactive and avoid a compact call instead of being reactive and responding to crisis if it came to pass,” Newman said.

“Big river” issues aside, Northwest Colorado water users are feeling the squeeze after record-breaking heat and drought in 2018 prompted the first-ever call on the Yampa River.

Furthermore, officials at the Colorado Division of Water Resources will examine this year whether the Yampa and the White rivers should be designated as “over-appropriated,” Division Engineer Erin Light told roundtable members at the Jan. 9 meeting.

The designation would signal that there is not enough water to meet demands during dry years, and new water rights would be conditional to available water supply.

But even as water users start to adjust to the new local reality, roundtable members are preparing for an uphill battle to argue their case regarding demand management.

“We’re already sending as much water as we can,” Monger said. “We’re paying the bill for Colorado.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Pilot published this story online on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 and the Press published it online on Jan. 30, 2019.

Judge James Boyd rules against Powderhorn Ski Area in change case

Photo via PlateauValley.com.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Erin McIntyre):

Three Mesa Creek Ditch water users, Andrea Clark, Tom Kirkpatrick and Dana Black, objected to the resort’s plans to divert the water during the wintertime, transporting it to a nearby reservoir and storing it for snowmaking and other uses…

In that trial, the ditch users argued the ski resort bought a 1- cubic-foot-per-second water right that didn’t totally belong to the seller. They also accused Powderhorn of buying the water on speculation, as it had no way to transport or store the water in question when it asked the state for permission to change the way the water was being used.

George Bevan, a former Mesa Creek Ditch Co. president who died in October, sold the water to the ski resort about three years ago. Powderhorn intended to divert up to 150 acre-feet of the water during the winter, transporting it more than a mile away across private property to the H.U. Robbins Reservoir or a small pond at the base of the resort, and use the water for snowmaking.

The ski resort planned on purchasing, leasing or condemning rights of way necessary to transport the water, according to previous court documents. Powderhorn has 42 snowmaking acres and wanted to expand its operations.

But Boyd ruled the most water that Bevan could have used, historically, for watering his livestock from Oct. 1 to April 1 each year is only 6 or 7 acre-feet, at most.

While he decreed that Bevan owned the right to use 1 cubic foot per second of the water Powderhorn purchased from him, he ruled the water right had been used at much lower levels than the ski resort argued.

Bevan testified he kept a maximum of 400 cows at the location over the winter, using the water right for livestock.

A water engineer testified that amount of cattle would consume as much as 7 acre-feet of water over the course of a winter, and the judge used that amount to determine the historic use of the water right. An acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons, enough water to cover a football field a foot deep…

The issue of who owns exactly how much winter water in this section of the Mesa Creek Ditch remains unresolved, but the judge ruled that Powderhorn has the right to use the historical amount of water Bevan used and sold to the resort.

The judge also ruled the ski resort is one of only nine original claimants of the winter water right on the ditch, meaning other users who believed they had the right to use the water over time may be doing so illegally.

It’s unclear whether Powderhorn will opt to apply to use the lesser amount of water for snowmaking or pursue its plans to transport the water from Mesa Creek to the ski area. The judge denied the ski resort’s application in this instance but did not prevent it from reapplying in a future application.

The judge’s ruling leaves the ski resort with the option of reapplying to use 7 acre-feet of water over the course of a winter for snowmaking, one-fifth the amount Powderhorn wanted to use.

@USBR Releases #ColoradoRiver Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study #COriver #aridification

Click here to read the report. Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced today the release of the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study that was conducted collaboratively with the member tribes of the Ten Tribes Partnership.

The study documents how Partnership Tribes currently use their water, projects how future water development could occur and describes the potential effects of future tribal water development on the Colorado River System. The study also identifies challenges related to the use of tribal water and explores opportunities that provide a wide range of benefits to both Partnership Tribes and other water users.

“We face a prolonged drought that represents one of the driest 20-year periods on the Colorado River in the last 1,200 years,” said Commissioner Burman. “This study is an important step forward that furthers our understanding of the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin and the actions we can take to collaboratively address them.”

While not all federally-recognized tribes in the basin are members of the Ten Tribes Partnership, the Partnership Tribes have reserved water rights, including unresolved claims, to potentially divert nearly 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River and its tributaries. In many cases, these rights are senior to other uses.

The study is the outcome of a commitment between Reclamation and the Partnership Tribes to engage in a joint study to build on the scientific foundation of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, published by Reclamation in 2012.

“Reclamation recognized the need for additional analyses and work following the 2012 Colorado River Basin Study,” said Reclamation Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp. “Working together, the Ten Tribes Partnership and Reclamation have produced a valuable reference that is the first of its kind in the Colorado River Basin.”

The study highlights tribal observations and concerns, including lack of water security, incomplete distribution systems and regulatory and economic challenges to developing water systems in geographically diverse areas.

“In light of the importance of tribal water rights in the Colorado River Basin, the Partnership and Reclamation collaborated to contribute crucial tribal-specific information to the discussions regarding Colorado River management,” said Lorelei Cloud, Chairman of the Ten Tribes Partnership. “Without the hard work and dedication of Reclamation, tribal leaders, and tribal staff, this critical project would not have been possible.”

The Ten Tribes Partnership was formed in 1992 by ten federally recognized tribes with federal Indian reserved water rights in the Colorado River or its tributaries. Five member tribes are located in the Upper Basin (Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Nation and Navajo Nation) and five are in the Lower Basin (Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Quechan Indian Tribe and Cocopah Indian Tribe).

The study is available at: https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/programs/crbstudy/tribalwaterstudy.html

#ColoradoRiver water district (@ColoradoWater) endorses state policy on #LakePowell #drought plan — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2018

A heron on a big sandbank in upper Lake Powell, above Hite. As the big reservoir recedes due to almost 20 years of drought in the Colorado River basin, new sights are emerging. A regional effort to send more water into Lake Powell in a new regulatory pool of water is gaining momentum in anticipation of a regional water meeting in mid-December in Las Vegas. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District voted Monday to endorse a new state policy regarding “drought contingency planning” designed to bolster water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, with the larger goal of avoiding violating the Colorado River Compact.

The support of the River District board, which represents 15 Western Slope counties, was expected. The district’s general manager, Andy Mueller, spoke in favor of the policy before the CWCB directors unanimously voted to approve it Nov. 15 at a meeting in Golden.

Expected or not, the support by the River District board was seen a key step in the fast-moving effort to get the four states in the upper Colorado River basin, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and the three states in the lower river basin, California, Arizona and Nevada, to keep working together on a plan to keep the two biggest reservoirs on the river system functioning as intended.

Lake Powell today is 43 percent full. The giant reservoir formed by Glen Canyon Dam typically receives 10.3 million acre-feet of water flowing into it from the Colorado, Green and San Juan rivers each year. But annual inflows have been less than 5 million acre-feet for seven of the past 18 years, and have been below average for 15 of the past 18 years, according to a summary of recent water meeting at Colorado Mesa University prepared by Ken Ransford, the secretary of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.

Water from the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal rivers flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.

Water managers say three more dry years could leave the reservoir too low to make hydropower at the dam, and then if drought continues, too low to release enough water to meet the upper basin’s obligations to the lower basin, which could trigger a compact call.

The timing of the River District’s vote Monday was also important, as the seven basin states are working to gain basin-wide consensus on a series of related drought contingency agreements by the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas from Dec. 12 to 14.

And if the River District had not endorsed the state’s new policy, it could have signaled discord on the plans between Colorado’s Western Slope and Front Range.

“We recognize that these policies are far from perfect. We do, however, believe that they represent a good-faith effort by the CWCB at demonstrating leadership and a commitment to many of the policies adopted by our board,” Mueller said in a Nov. 23 memo to the district’s board of directors.

The new Colorado policy, which has now been endorsed by the River District, voices the state’s support for setting up a regulated pool of water in Lake Powell designed to boost reservoir levels.

That pool of water — a tiny bucket within a very big bucket — is to be filled through a voluntary, temporary and compensated demand management, or water-use reduction, program that has yet to be set up across the upper basin states.

Colorado’s new policy also says if the voluntary program does not send enough water to the new pool in Lake Powell, and a mandatory curtail program is necessary to avoid a compact call, that such a mandatory program be set up only after a public process.

The policy also says that the voluntary program will be designed to cut back on water use on both sides of the Continental Divide so as to minimize economic hardship being focused on just one part of the state.

“One of the primary areas of concern for the West Slope conservation districts is that any demand management program not have disproportionate impacts on the West Slope and that water contributed to such a program be produced in rough proportion to the post compact depletions to the Colorado River system from both sides of the continental divide,” wrote Mueller in his Nov. 23 memo.

Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County on the River District board, put that concern in plain terms Monday: “I want the Front Range to actually have to turn off the spigot, so to speak.”

A raft coming out of Cataract Canyon into upper Lake Powell encounters the bathtub ring left by the receding reservoir. As Lake Powell, and Lake Mead, continue to see less and less water, it’s prompting water managers, including those at the Colorado River District, to coordinate on ways to send more water downstream. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

Soft on prior appropriation?

The River District’s endorsement of the new state policy was not without some contention, including issues raised by Glenn Porzak, the water attorney for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, which together provide water for 65,000 users in the Vail and Eagle County region.

Porzak had concerns about whether the state policy represented a retreat from the prior appropriation doctrine in Colorado, which is summed up by the phrase “first in time, first in right.”

In his letter, Porzak said language in the new state policy about potential future compact administration “is an obvious effort to protect transmountain diverters with junior water rights and should be alarming to all senior West Slope water managers, owners and organizations charged with protecting those rights.”

Porzak also questioned whether the CWCB would advocate in the future for strict adherence to the prior appropriation system, where junior water rights are cut off before senior rights, and especially water rights in use before the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed.

“The lack of commitment to the state’s constitution and laws demonstrates its intent to deviate from them should a compact call occur,” Porzak said in his letter.

The River District board discussed Porzak’s concerns and then ended up taking three votes on carefully worded motions, all of which passed.

The first vote was to formalize the River District’s support for the regional drought contingency planning efforts and the setting up a voluntary demand management program in Colorado and the other upper basin states.

That motion also said “the River District will continue to advocate on behalf of West Slope water uses in future discussions concerning a demand management program.”

The second vote was to voice the district’s support for a public process in the event that a mandatory effort was needed.

And in response to Porzak’s concerns, that motion also said the River District will only support curtailment policies or actions that are consistent with the district’s own policies regarding the Colorado River Compact.

The River District’s policy, last updated in July, recognizes that some flexibility in how the prior appropriation system is administered may be needed in the future, given the complexity of actually curtailing water rights across four Western Slope river basins based strictly on their priority date.

The third vote taken Monday by the River District board was to support, in concept, the short piece of federal legislation that is soon to be introduced and is required to allow the drought contingency planning efforts to take effect.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

The biggest share of #ColoradoRiver water in the West is up for grabs #COriver

The American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. Photo credit: Adam Dubrowa, FEMA/Wikipedia.

From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Sammy Roth):

A public agency and a powerful farmer are gearing up for a high-stakes court battle to determine who owns the largest share of Colorado River water in the West, complicating the river’s future as seven western states scramble to avoid severe water shortages.

There’s a long history of fighting over water in California’s Imperial Valley, which has a legal right to more than 1 trillion gallons of Colorado River water each year — twice as much as the rest of California, and as much as Arizona and Nevada combined.

But officials at the publicly owned Imperial Irrigation District say the lawsuit brought against the agency by Mike Abatti, an influential farmer, could be a game-changer for the U.S. Southwest. They say Abatti’s lawsuit could shift control of the Imperial Valley’s water supply away from the public and toward a small group of landowning farmers.

Abatti has made the same argument.

“This case presents a pivotal struggle over the ownership and control of what may be the most historic and invaluable water rights in the Southwest United States,” Abatti’s lawyers wrote in their opening brief to an appellate court in San Diego last month.

Abatti’s lawsuit is a key issue in next week’s election for one of five seats on IID’s board of directors. Norma Sierra Galindo, the incumbent, has pledged to keep fighting the lawsuit, frustrating farmers who have urged IID to settle the case. Galindo’s challenger, Carlos Zaragoza, recently received campaign contributions from Abatti’s brother Jimmy, and from another farmer who has leased land from Abatti. Zaragoza has refused to discuss his views on the Abatti lawsuit or to say whether he would support a settlement.

“As to who owns the water, that’s to be determined by the courts,” Zaragoza said at a debate earlier this month. “I would support the law as determined by the courts.”

Abatti won a sweeping ruling in Imperial County Superior Court last year. The ruling was written by Judge L. Brooks Anderholt, who presided over the case despite his long history of business and social ties to members of the Abatti family, as The Desert Sun has reported. Anderholt ruled that IID “holds mere legal title to the water rights,” and that farmers “own the equitable and beneficial interest in the water rights.” He described the farmers’ interest in the water rights as “a constitutionally protected property right.”

[…]

The Abatti case has also pitted Imperial Valley city governments, industrial developers and labor unions against powerful farmers. Agriculture uses 97 percent of the valley’s Colorado River water, and critics of Abatti’s lawsuit say giving farmers more control would cripple IID’s ability to guarantee a reliable water supply for cities and industry. The city councils of El Centro and Calipatria have passed resolutions supporting IID in the lawsuit, at the urging of a group called the Imperial Valley Coalition for Fair Sharing of Water, which was organized by former Imperial County supervisor Wally Leimgruber.

“Without access to water, there is no reason for the valley to exist,” El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker said last month, before the city council voted 5-0 to support IID’s position. “We know that the municipalities within Imperial County use only 3 percent. But that 3 percent is the lifeline for every single person that lives within Imperial County.”

Last Ditch Standing: A tale of water inequality in the West — Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

My parents have a small garlic farm in Western Colorado in the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. They bought the place just over a decade ago, along with a couple of shares of water from the ditch which runs through their property. It’s a nice little plot of rural Colorado with good dirt and nice views, but it wasn’t until this terribly dry summer that they realized how valuable the land is. The Farmers Ditch, diverted from the North Fork near Paonia, has some of the most senior rights in the valley. They are water-rich in an arid world.

Since white settlement began here back in the late 1800s, the communities of the North Fork have revolved around coal and agriculture. Three underground coal mines churned away for decades, their bounty loaded upon mile-long trains headed for power plants in the Midwest and beyond. Paonia and the surrounding mesas have long been renowned for fruit, vegetables and, for a time, marijuana.

After surging to a peak just over a decade ago, coal began its hasty, nationwide decline, and now only one of three mines in the North Fork is still operating. Meanwhile, small-scale agriculture has taken over as one of the main economic pillars of this idyllic valley: Cherries, peaches, hops and hemp. Agricultural interests also are a strong political force rising up in resistance to proposed oil and gas drilling because of its detrimental effect on the water, which is becoming more and more precious in a warming world.

Thanks to the dramatically sere appearance of the natural landscape, the North Fork Valley provides a stark visual reminder of the importance of large-scale irrigation in these parts. A ditch along a hillside becomes a sharp divide between the dry, sparse, dusty dobie-land above the ditch; and green, grassy, cottonwood- and cattail-strewn land below it. This is true even where no active irrigation is taking place; the ditches are generally so leaky that they create artificial wetlands in areas that are distant from fields or crops or lawns.

Most of the irrigation water comes from the North Fork, which begins at the confluence of Muddy Creek and Anthracite Creek. Paonia Reservoir sits just above the confluence, on Muddy Creek. Typically the reservoir fills up during the spring and early summer, during which the natural flow in Anthracite Creek is adequate to fill all of the downstream ditches. When Anthracite starts to wane, water is released from the reservoir to keep the ditches flowing, usually into August and sometimes even until late October. In late June or early July the river’s total flow reaches equilibrium with the volume diverted from it, causing the river through Paonia to dry to a tiny, warm trickle that is good for sustaining only crawdads and mosquito larvae.

Even more shocking than the annual desiccation of the riverbed is the way in which so many water rights holders continue to pull their maximum share from the ditch, even if it’s not needed, even if they have no crops or even lawn to irrigate. “Use it or lose it,” the saying goes. Meanwhile, only a handful of the small-scale farmers have bothered to install more efficient irrigating systems, and most of the ditches continue to leak like sieves. That may be fine in a time of abundance, but these are times of increasing scarcity.

Paonia Reservoir — which gets its water from aptly named Muddy Creek — is filling up with mud. When constructed in 1962, the reservoir had 21,000 acre feet of capacity; today only 14,000 acre feet of capacity remain. So the amount of water available to irrigators is diminishing, even during wet years. But this year was one of the driest on record, which prompted downstream, senior water rights holders to put a “call” on the river in mid-June, at least a month earlier than usual, forcing junior, upstream holders to stop diverting water. By the time August rolled around, all but a few ditches in the North Fork had been shut down or had their flows drastically curtailed. Farmers Ditch, meanwhile, kept running right up to the brim.

The farmers of the North Fork Valley make up a fairly tight-knit community. They share seedlings and knowledge, hay balers and tillers, trade garlic for meat. So one would expect them to respond to a water crisis in much the same way, with the haves on Farmers Ditch sharing their bounty with the have-nots whose ditches ran dry. At the very least, you’d expect the haves to cut down on their own water use, even if just out of respect for their less fortunate neighbors.

But that’s not how it works in the arcane world of Western water. This summer most of the folks on Farmers Ditch carried on like they would any other year, using up their entire share of water and letting whatever they didn’t use run off across the mesa tops to evaporate and seep into the earth while their dry-ditch neighbors looked on helplessly. I watched one landowner wastefully dump a steady stream of irrigation water on his dusty horse pasture, turning it into a nasty mud bog where only a few thistles grew, while a mile away crops wilted. Wealth-inequality may be the scourge of our nation, but it’s water inequality that will increasingly plague the arid West.

The ostentatiously water wealthy are not entirely to blame. I’m confident that most of them would have been happy share their bounty if they could. But there’s no simple mechanism for this kind of cooperation. My parents can’t just turn a valve and send their water across the valley to their fellow farmer. The system wasn’t designed that way. It is the system that needs changing.

“The solution is, in a sense, straightforward,” writes John Fleck in his book Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West. “Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has to use less water. But no one will voluntarily take such a step without changes in the rules governing basin water use as a whole to ensure that everyone else shares the reductions as well—that any pain is truly shared. We need new rules. Absent that, we simply end up with a tragedy of the commons.”

Fleck’s referring to the macro of the Colorado River Basin here, but it also applies to the micro of irrigation districts everywhere. New rules, new systems, new ways of operating are needed that would incentivize efficiency and that would allow the Farmers Ditches of the world to share with the others in the community who aren’t so fortunate.

When it comes to water, though, we Westerners tend to get entrenched in the use-it-or-lose-it culture, which is anathema to cooperation and to efficiency. Still, this is not unsurmountable. When pushed up against the wall, Westerners have become more limber in their approach to water. Take Las Vegas, which has managed to cut per capita water use enough so that it’s been able to grow its population without robbing Great Basin farmers of their groundwater — at least so far.

And then there’s another, smaller instance of cooperation that bears mentioning. After the Sunnyside Mine upstream from Silverton, Colorado, shut down in 1991, the owners put a boxcar-sized plug, or bulkhead, into the mine’s main tunnel to keep the 1,600 gallons-per-minute of acid mine drainage from going into the Animas River watershed.

Not long afterward, the region suffered through what at the time seemed like a horrible drought, prompting a downstream ditch company to make a call on the Animas River.

That’s when Silverton discovered that the founding fathers had failed to file for water rights back in the early days of the town, leaving the town with some of the most junior rights on the entire river. They faced the very real prospect of having to shut down their municipal water intakes. Instead, the Sunnyside Mine stepped up and opened the valve on the giant plug, releasing enough water (and treating it) to satisfy the downstream call, and buying Silverton time during which it could seek out a long-term fix. (Then the mine shut the valve down again and water backed up in the mine to disastrous effect, but then, that’s another story.)

It’s this sort of out-of-the-box, pragmatic, cooperative thinking that the West is known for, and that has helped many a community transition successfully away from extraction-based economies. Now the warming, drying region is faced with a much bigger, tougher transition, with even higher stakes.

Jonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

@ColoradoSun: A Q&A with former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs, one of the state’s top water experts #aridification #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Friend of Coyote Gulch, Greg Hobbs, sat down with John Ingold of the Colorado Sun to talk water history and the future of the Colorado River Basin. Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado’s system governing water use predates the state itself — the oldest water rights in Colorado date to the 1850s. And it is so closely linked to the state that, even when it is used elsewhere, it is often called the “Colorado Doctrine.”

But can it survive perhaps the greatest challenge in its history — a double-whammy of drought and population growth?

To answer that question, The Colorado Sun sat down with retired state Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs, one of Colorado’s foremost minds on water law. Hobbs has 45 years of experience practicing water law in Colorado, and he continues to serve as a senior water judge and mediator.

First, some background: This spring, an influential water think tank, the Colorado River Research Group, released a report calling on water wonks to stop using the term “drought” to describe what is happening in the West. Drought implies something temporary, the report argued. But these changes show no sign of being temporary.

“For that, perhaps the best available term is aridification, which describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment,” the group stated in its report.

Meanwhile, the Colorado State Demography Office projects that Colorado will add 3 million people by 2050, bringing the population above 8 million.

This is a worrying prospect for water in Colorado — party to nine interstate water compacts and home to thousands of individual water rights, each meticulously ordered in priority from oldest to youngest. And the strain may already be starting to show.

The fiscal year that ended in June 2017 — the most recent for which data is available — had the most claims and filings in state water court since the similarly parched year of 2012, according to a Colorado Sun analysis. Thornton and Fort Collins are currently locked in a testy battle over how to move water that Thornton has the rights to out of the Poudre River, lifeblood of Fort Collins. And, according to reporting by Water Education Colorado, a New York hedge fund has spent millions buying up senior water rights on Colorado’s Western Slope — apparently betting on future shortages.

Does Hobbs think the Colorado Doctrine is built to withstand this kind of stress? The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity, readability and brevity. At one point, Rob McCallum, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch who helped arrange the interview and sat in on it, also chimes in.

Hobbs talks about complicated water compacts and delivery systems as casually as discussing high school memories with an old friend, and it can be hard to keep up. So there are a few Colorado Water 101 explainers sprinkled in to help out.

Gregory Hobbs: The (Colorado River) Compact has really been tested in recent years with sustained drought. But it’s working.

Colorado Sun: At what point does it break?

GH: It doesn’t.

CS: It can’t?

GH: No. Not unless one of the states convinces the other six to renegotiate the compact; it’s perpetual. … Congress could try to override it. But I just don’t see it happening because Congress agreed to the compact.

So this is the essence of state-federal sovereignty, these nine interstate compacts that Colorado is a part of. The alternative is litigating in the U.S. Supreme Court for an allocation. It’s an amazing thing that in this 16-year drought, the target release of 8.25 (million acre-feet per year) out of (Lake) Powell has been met or exceeded.